Three Days in June

2130 DBST, Friday, 2 June, 1944—Supreme Commanders Meeting, SHAEF Advanced Headquarters, Southwick House, England
Group Captain James Martin Stagg, SHAEF’s chief meteorologist tasked with predicting the weather for the invasion of Normandy, stood by the door to what had been the navigation school’s library. With him in the great hall of Southwick House were his deputy, Colonel Donald N. Yates of the USSTAF, and Royal Navy colleague, Instructor Commander John Fleming. A bluish haze of cigarette and pipe smoke shrouded the three waiting weathermen and knots of admirals, brigadiers, and colonels who served as aides to Eisenhower and his subordinate supreme commanders of Allied air, army, and navy forces. Behind the tall closed door, Eisenhower had assembled his most senior commanders. In a few moments Stagg and Yates would be summoned. They would deliver the forecast for the weather that invading forces were likely to encounter Sunday night, 4 June, and Monday morning, 5 June, the date set for D-day.

The door to the room where Eisenhower and his subordinate commanders were gathered opened. Stagg and Yates were beckoned. They were an odd pair. Stagg at 6’2″ stood a full head taller than Yates at 5’5″. From above deeply set eyes, Stagg’s forehead rose like a chalk cliff topped with a mop of coarsely brushed dark auburn hair. His Royal Air Force uniform, which had likely never known a Savile Row tailor, hung from his angular frame. Following Stagg as they entered the room was the dapper Yates with his Clark Gable mustache. He carried himself with the bearing of the West Point cadet he’d been before graduation and commissioning in 1931.

To their left sat Eisenhower in an easy chair. Next to him was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder and then Lieutenant General Walter Bedell-Smith, Ike’s chief of staff. Off their right shoulders, in three informal rows of overstuffed club chairs and couches, lounged Leigh-Mallory, Montgomery, Ramsay, and their various deputies and chiefs of staff. Were it not for the absence of alcohol and the direness of the hour, this might have been an informal briefing after a long and satisfying evening mess.

“Well, Stagg,” Eisenhower opened, “What do you have for us this time?”

Stagg began. “The whole situation from the British Isles to Newfoundland has been transformed in recent days and is now potentially full of menace. In the last 24 hours there has been no clear indication of how it will go, better or worse, but, at the best, weather in the Channel for the next three or four days at least will be very different from what we’d hoped for.”

There it was.  With warships already at sea and troopships loaded with soldiers for D-day set to sail in the morning, Ike’s worries about the weather deepened like a building low pressure cell. May’s soft spring breezes and sunny days brought into bloom buttercups and daisies in the fields and wild clematis in the woods near Eisenhower’s trailer. Green of new leaves frothed the crowns of ancient forests. Mistle thrush and an occasional cuckoo called at dawn and dusk. Showers were few and those that fell were welcomed by homemakers planting victory vegetable gardens. Such consistently lovely weather had not been difficult to forecast.

On their weather charts, Stagg and Yates had seen the signs of change. That’s what worried them. A cold front traveling at 35 mpg could swing across the North Atlantic in four days. They knew one or more were on the way. Each of the centrals had its own idea of just when they would arrive and how severe they would be. Dissent brewed darkly like the approaching cold front. Stagg and Yates reached their olive drab wall tent near Ike’s trailer beneath the trees in the woods, hung up their uniforms, settled onto their cots, and sought a few hours’ nap made fitful by the fact that the odds of getting the forecast right were not much better than a coin toss.

2130 DBST 3 June—Supreme Commanders Meeting, Southwick House
As Stagg and Yates waited in the great hall as the last of the commanders filed into the library, Air Chief Marshal Tedder approached. He’d been told that the USSTAF forecasters thought the weather on the night when the invasion was to begin was much better than Stagg’s forecast.

“What the devil has been going on behind the scenes in recent days, Stagg?” Tedder asked.

“I’m afraid the weather centers haven’t quite been seeing eye to eye in recent days. Widewing’s techniques have led them to be more consistently optimistic than I have thought to be warranted, and I have taken the responsibility of toning down their contributions,” Stagg replied.

Admiral George Creasy, Ramsay’s chief of staff, approached. “Well, you chaps, I hope you have some reassuring news for us tonight? When you (looking at Stagg) went out from yesterday evening’s meeting I remarked to the company—There goes six foot two of Stagg and six feet one of gloom. Is that how you really felt or was I misjudging you?”

Stagg smiled wanly and said, “I’m sorry, Sir; I didn’t intend that my face should be used as the hall barometer. But you were right and I’m afraid I don’t feel much happier now.”

Before Eisenhower and his assembled commanders, Stagg reported that during 4/5 June, the depressions would cause “disturbed conditions in the Channel and assault area.” He forecast high west-southwest winds. Cloud would likely be low and thick with visibility limited to three or four miles. These conditions would persist until early Wednesday 8 June, when a new low, situated south of Canada’s Maritimes would probably blow through.

0100 DBST 4 June—Blacksod Point Station, Meteorological Service, Republic of Ireland
When Maureen Flavin rose to take weather readings from the instruments in the corner of the post office, she found that the barometer showed a slight drop in air pressure. Wind was out of the west southwest at 7 mph. Drizzle was intermittent. Pressure continued to fall all morning, with periods of rain and winds still steadily blowing in from the south-southwest.

0300 DBST 4 June—SHAEF Advanced Headquarters, Southwick
The Admiralty opened the conference call linking the weather centrals with a firm pronouncement that the weather would continue to deteriorate. The Azores High was fading and drifting westward. Petterssen for the Met Office agreed and predicted that the low spotted near Newfoundland the previous afternoon would sweep through on 6 or 7 June. Krick objected strongly to the pessimistic forecast. He had examined every weather map for the past fifty years. Every day like the one depicted by this morning’s chart was followed by a day where the high-pressure ridge had strengthened and moved back to the north. That would save the Channel from the rapidly approaching low with its wind and cloud. But having felt heat from Yates the day before to get on board with the others, agreed not to dispute the forecast Stagg’s.

0415 DBST 4 June—Supreme Commanders Meeting, Southwick House
Stagg once again stood before Eisenhower with Yates and Fleming behind him. He reported that the details of the previous night’s forecast were essentially unchanged. The Channel would experience strong wind and heavy cloud. The only difference in the new set of predictions was that the cold front was moving faster than anticipated and could swing through Monday or Tuesday.

Admiral Ramsay broke the silence. “The sky outside here at the moment is practically clear and there is no wind: when do you expect the cloud and wind of your forecast to appear here?”

“In another four or five hours, Sir.”  They were dismissed and returned their tent. Ike postponed the invasion for 24 hours.

1300 DBST 4 June—SHAEF Advanced Headquarters, Southwick
When Stagg arose later that morning, he was appalled to find the sky still clear and no sign of much wind. Yet when he and Yates made it up the hill to the manor house, the wind was approaching Force 4, tree boughs were bending, cloud was thickening, and the ceiling was lowering. Their relief was palpable. The much anticipated front moving at about 40 mph had passed the weather ship HMS Hoste between 0000 and 0400DBST, had swung across Ireland later that morning and was now driving across southern England and the Channel.

1300 DBST 4 June – Blacksod Point Station, Meteorological Service, Republic of Ireland
In taking this hour’s readings, Flavin noted that the barometer had ceased to fall. In the next few hours would pressure begin to climb? Wind was becoming more westerly.

1930 DBST 4 June—SHAEF Advanced Headquarters, Southwick
On the call, Stagg was relieved that the centers generally agreed that new lows would pass to the northeast of the British Isles and that the weather late on the night of 5 June and through most of the 6th would be suitable for the landings and the skies clear enough for air support. Bates and Crowell at the Admiralty forecast that swell off the beaches would drop from eight to ten feet to three to four feet and to two to three feet off Utah Beach, protected from westerlies by the Cotentin Peninsula.

One key question remained: What would the weather be like on 7 and 8 June? Most agreed that winds would moderate, seldom rising above Force 4 and often less. Cloud cover was another question. Nobody was certain of that. And none of the centrals was willing to risk a longer-range prediction.

2130 DBST 4 June—Supreme Commanders Meeting, Southwick House
Force 5 winds from the southwest and heavy intermittent squalls buffeted the blacked-out French doors of the library where the commanders were meeting. But Stagg said the weather would be much better on the night of 5/6 June.

After hearing Stagg’s briefing, Ike’s commanders debated the pros and cons of postponing further. The he put it this way: “Well, I’m quite positive we must give the order; the only question is whether we should meet again in the morning. Well, I don’t like it, but there it is.” He paused, then continued: “Well boys, there it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.’”

The final discussion to launch the greatest amphibious invasion in history had taken only fifteen minutes.